JMW: From your first novel “Mistwood” to the “Death Sworn” series, lies drive much of your fiction, particularly, the lies told to your protagonist. What keeps drawing you back to this theme?
Leah Cypess: I think it’s partly what drove me to young adult fiction in the first place, which is that a lot of it is about the protagonist discovering herself. In some cases, discovering herself as a shapeshifter with no memory, or discovering herself as a sorceress thrown into a group of assassins, but basically, the main character is discovering the truth about the world as she sees it, rather than as what has been told to her. And I think that’s a pretty universal theme. Not necessarily because everyone has been lied to, but everyone has been given certain truths about the world that, in many cases, were believed by the people telling them, might not be believed by the person themself, or just might be subtler, more complicated. Everyone looks at the world in their own way, and at some point, everyone grows away from the truths they’ve been told, and in some cases, the actual lies they’ve been told to the truths as they see it. And even moving away from young adult fiction, I think this is something that most people continue doing throughout their whole lives. I don’t think people stop changing their views and stop assimilating truths, you know, just because they’ve graduated from high school or college. I think most people do that for their entire lives, and it’s something that I find very meaningful and interesting.
JMW: So, does it have any resonance with your experiences as a lawyer?
Leah Cypess: So, the honest truth is that I wrote the first draft of “Mistwood” in law school before I became a lawyer. I did not actually manage to revise it, finish it, and send it out until I had stopped being a lawyer, because of lack of time. But honestly, I was a lawyer for two years in a very large New York City firm, where I mostly sat in big conference rooms and read other people’s emails. I did not get to do any dramatic, exciting cases, or catch people out in lies, or anything like that. I did a lot of pro bono work, which I think gave me very valuable, sort of, eye into the way the court system works for a lot of people, but I wasn’t really a lawyer like the kind of lawyer that you see on TV shows.
JMW: So, you were never afflicted with the cynicism of “everybody lies.”
Leah Cypess: No, not really.
JMW: Well, that’s good. That’s a hopeful thought. Speaking of cynicism, you would think New York, law, etc. would make you a terrible cynic, yet, your recent story in “Persistent Visions” turned the Bluebeard myth entirely on its head, and made him the hero. How did that come about?
Leah Cypess: Well, I read many versions of the “Bluebeard” story, including many related fairytales that are not exactly “Bluebeard,” but are very like it. And in many of them, the main character, the woman who was married to Bluebeard, actually loves him, and her brother, or whoever it is in the story who rescues her, kills Bluebeard against her will and she mourns him. I just found that very interesting and I wanted to work that into the story, obviously, without having the main character be a complete idiot who loved someone who was murdering people. And that was actually the genesis for the story. That was how the story came about, where Bluebeard was immortal and his wives kept dying, not because he was killing them, but because he simply outlived them.
JMW: Mm-hmm. Do you like to turn, in your stories, because you’ve done a lot of short fiction as well as your novels, is turning expectations on their head almost as important to you as the development of your YA protagonist and their vision of themselves in the world?
Leah Cypess: So, when “Mistwood” came out, a lot of reviewers said, “I can usually see how books end, but I can’t see how this one ends.” And that…I was kind of proud of that because I’m also a person who can almost always see how a book is going to end. It doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book. I like the process of figuring it out, but when an author does outsmart me and the book ends in a way that seems organic, but at the same, was unexpected to me, I really love that. And, like most authors, I want to write the kind of books that I like to read, and I like reading books that play with my expectations, and challenge them, and end in ways that I wasn’t anticipating. So, that’s a lot of what I try to do as a writer.
JMW: Cool. Very cool. And that adds an extra spice to the books. You’re also a big proponent of hands-on research. What are some of the more unusual things you’ve done to research your books and stories?
Leah Cypess: Well, probably the most unusual one is that I was traveling in Costa Rica with a friend of mine, and we went hiking and we saw this waterfall. And I was writing a manuscript, at the time, where I wanted the characters to be near a waterfall at night. So, I said to her, “You know what, we gotta go back there and we gotta go to the waterfall at night and see what it looks like,” and she thought I was a little bit crazy and, actually, in retrospect, I was a little bit crazy. But we went back on that jungle path, in the middle of the night, with flashlights, and it was quite a creepy experience. And we went to the waterfall at night and we turned off our flashlights, and it turns out that what a waterfall at night looks is nothing, because it’s pitch black.
JMW: Oh, sort of like…
Leah Cypess: And you can’t see.
JMW: …the road in the darkness?
Leah Cypess: Yeah, but it was a really interesting experience.
JMW: Oh, cool. And what about some falconry, I think, you’ve done?
Leah Cypess: Yeah, so that was actually not for a specific book. But, you know, I’ve always wanted to be a fantasy writer, so when I found out that there was a place where you can go falconing, we did that as a trip, and we went on, you know, it’s called a “hawk walk,” where you learn how to handle the birds and you walk with them. And it was very interesting because I’m an orthodox Jew, and under Jewish law, you’re not allowed to hunt for sport. And on this hawk walk, it’s not actually a hunt, but the falcons are trained to do what they’re trained to do. So, very often, they see something, they will go after it, and they will hunt it. So, I actually had to call a rabbi and be like, “This is probably not a question you get very often.”
JMW: Yeah, hawks are like cats. “It moves, I will kill it.”
Leah Cypess: Yes.
JMW: Getting back to the “Death Sworn” series, which we haven’t talked about too much. Can your fans expect more in the world of Ileni and Sorin, though not necessarily about them?
Leah Cypess: So, unfortunately, I don’t think so. The second book in that duology didn’t sell extremely well and there will not be a third book. And, you know, I had actually planned that it could end with the second book. I think I have told…I basically told Ileni and Sorin’s story. I wouldn’t rule out a novella, or something like that, that I would put up on my own that would continue in that world, but for right now, I’m working on other things.
JMW: So, no number three, but you say you’re working on something now. What is it?
Leah Cypess: So, right now I’m working on several things and we’ll kind of see what sticks. One thing I’m working on that’s new for me is a science fiction…a young adult science fiction book. I’ve written a lot of science fiction short stories, but until now, all my book-length ideas have been fantasy. And I’m currently actually finishing up a science fiction manuscript, and I’m also working on a young adult fantasy novella, which is also kind of a new form and length for me to be experimenting with. So, both of those are projects I’m actively working on right now and that I’m really excited about.
JMW: That’s very cool. We’ve come up against the end of the interview. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Leah Cypess: Thank you for listening and thank you for interviewing me. I really appreciate it.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.